If I had kept up my drinking, it would have taken longer for me to freeze solid. I'd be pickled and everybody knows that pickles keep for months in the fridge. I wanted to tell Ms. Simon that pickles don't need to freeze, but she wouldn't believe me.
I jumped out of my hamster nest of shredded cardboard and started pounding on the door. The hinges were on the outside, so I couldn't tamper with those. The window was probably extra thick, no way of bashing through it with anything less than a tank shell. A plain lightbulb poked out of the wall to the right of the door and about a foot over my head. The lightbulb was covered by a thick condom of glass, the kind of thing you'd see in an old submarine.
I looked around for tools I could use. Boxes of cheese and chicken patties wouldn't get me through the door. The cold steel shelves looked like they might be light enough for me to push them around if I emptied all the boxes and food off them, but it would't accomplish much. They were the kind of shelves made to be easily taken apart or modified, so you could adjust the height of the shelves or keep stacking layers of shelves on top.
I climbed to the top of one shelf that was empty. The shelves weren't attached by bolts. They were made to be easily customized, so you could stack one on top of the other, as many levels as you needed. I pried the top shelf off. It was just a layer of criss-crossed steel rods like a grill, but solid enough to hold big boxes of cheese.
I dropped the shelf and climbed back down. Slamming the long shelf against the shielded glass bulb got me nowhere. I kept hitting it just to make noise, watching the window, which was above my head. All I could see was part of the ceiling outside. I stacked boxes of veal patties in front of the door so I could get my face up to the level of the window.
I saw one lunch lady in the kitchen, pouring a big tray of yesterday's meatloaf into an industrial size mixer. The bowl was at least two feet across. A little juice splattered out when she turned on the mixer for a few seconds. Then she turned it off and dumped the sludge on top of a tray of something frozen and red. In chili, no one can taste the leftover meatloaf.
I hammered on the window itself, couldn't even scratch it. I tapped the drum solo from Wipe-Out. I tried to think of what the lunch ladies might listen to, something they'd recognize. God damn Neal Peart anyway.
Where were all the kids? The doorway from the kitchen into the lunchroom was straight in front of me, thirty feet away, but the angle was all wrong. I could see the line of ladies spooning jello and turkey gravy on pastel trays, all of them standing in profile against the serving counter. If all but one of them were serving, it must be second lunch period. There must have been a hundred kids on the other side of that serving counter, passing in front of them, taking trays of "food" and giving them a hard time. But there was a wall between me and them, so I could only see the lunch ladies' side. Probably one Junior Millwright passed through the line every minute or two, but I had no way to get their attention. I couldn't see any of the kids and they couldn't see me.
I flicked the lightswitch off. Helps me think better in the dark. If I could break the lightbulb, maybe I could jam a piece of metal in the socket, short out a fuse or at least pop a circuit-breaker. With any luck, it would short out a whole section of lights and outlets. The equipment would go dead in the kitchen, maybe even the some of the lights in the cafeteria.
But the glass cover was too thick. No way my eight-year old arm could bust that thing, even if I had a Louisville slugger.
The fluorescents in the kitchen were fairly dim. Apparently their decades of dwelling in caves had made lunch ladies' eyes sensitive. The brightest thing out there was the little wall behind the string of ladies serving kids. I could see shadows of all the kids passing along that wall. No matter how dim the lights were in the cafeteria, there were windows to the outside world. The sun must have been glaring with full force through the windows to cast those clear, skinny shadows on the wall.
Then it dimmed. Clouds passing in front of the sun. Again the shadows grew distinct, then faded away.
I turned the light on. Off. On. I saw a tiny gleam off the side of that giant mixer. Even though the aluminum was dulled by years of weathering, scraps of pork and cole slaw and grease, I could see a tiny reflection on it when my light in the freezer went on and off. If the kids at lunch could see a reflection on the serving table, pinpricks of light winking all around the gleaming metal in front of the unresponsive lunch ladies....
I flashed the light on and off.
Flash flash flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash flash flash. Wait a few seconds. Flash flash flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash flash flash. Wait a few seconds.
As I dug in my pocket for the fake card, I saw two of the lunch ladies step back from the counter, holding out their arms like linemen. Kirby Johnson's head ducked under a flabby arm. It was like he dove right into a headlock, but that was all he needed. For a few seconds before the lunch lady pushed him back out of sight, I screamed, "Help me! Come get me! Call somebody!" I waved my hands over the window and put on a display, even though I knew he couldn't hear me.
Pretty soon the five ladies serving food were mobbed and overrun by squads of second graders. They pushed past and came right up to the freezer door, smiling and hollering like it was the best recess ever. Kirby held up his hand and waved me back away from the door. I moved behind one of the shelves that I hadn't cleared off earlier, so there was plenty of rock-solid meat to shield me from the blast. Love those little, green plastique army men. Almost as effective as an egg full of Deadly Putty.
The kids swarmed in and escorted me out, some of them still pressing the lunch ladies to the walls. I led them down the hall like a sea of tiny revolting peasants, back to Lisa's classroom. I knew it was going to look conspicuous, but grown-ups always write it off as kids acting silly. I peeked into the open doorway of Mrs. Conklin's room, but there was way too much noise and crowding behind me for the kids inside not to notice us. Mrs. Conklin saw her students turning to look at the doorway, so she noticed us too.
She said, "May I help you?" All sarcasm, but there was enough chuckle in her voice to know how far I could push it.
"Surprise birthday party for Lisa Reinhart," I said, "but where is she?"
The kids inside Lisa's class started to murmur, and so did the little Millwrights gathered behind me. Even members of a secret society like birthday cake.
"She's not on my calendar," Mrs. Conklin said, "and even if it was her birthday, Lisa's not here today. She stayed home because she wasn't feeling good."
Groaning at the loss of cake, Mrs. Conklin's students gave us a perfect opening to slip away. While the teacher turned to quiet them, we all ran away from her door.
I told the kids to get back to lunch or class before they got in any more trouble. Simon would be coming for me soon. I went straight to my locker to load my pockets with fresh supplies and ran for the buses.
Transportation was tricky, but I had gotten away with it before. A few buses lined the sidewalk, waiting to take home kindergarteners. Lucky little bastards only have to be at school half the day, and they get to go home on their own buses. I stepped on Bus 25 and handed the driver a note from my mother.
"To Whom It May Concern, Gus needs to ride the bus home with Bill Pierce this afternoon. Please call me if you have any concerns. Thanx, Bess Thompson (Gus's Mom)"
The note was real. The only forged part was the date, which I had modified when I pulled it out of my locker. Luckily this driver was different from the one Bill had last year when I really went camping with his family. Conning the bus driver was easy. The difficult part was sitting next to Bill Pierce for twenty minutes. If you need an operative in Kindergarten, Bill is your go-to guy. Just don't sit next to him on the bus -- he bites.
Lisa Reinhart had a sweet treehouse. It hung over a country road about half a mile from Bill's house, in the big yard in front of her real house. They had a pole barn and a lot of pasture fenced off, but the horses had been sold off a couple years before. I hate to consider whether Lisa was mean enough to have her horse assassinated after it bucked her off.
No, that's wishful thinking. There's no doubt.
A grid of ropes hung down from a thick tree branch, the kind of rope-ladder you see on playground equipment. Wide enough for three kids to climb up at once.
I climbed as quickly as I could to the first landing, which was like a section of veranda that had been ripped off the main house by a tornado and deposited in the branches of the tree. Polished wood slat floor, rails around two sides. Against the trunk of the tree was a wall of pale yellow siding that matched the main house, so it really did feel like you were standing on a front porch.
The higher landing was a small room built in the crotch of the tree, complete with a door, siding around the outside, a shingled roof, glass windows. Border trim around the inside of the room consisted of galloping horses, plus curtains and a lamp with matching beige background and brown horse silhouettes. Horsy nicknacks, comfy pillows, two blue sleeping bags unzipped and bunched up in a corner.
I climbed through a window with a branch near it, pulled myself up on the branch and climbed to the roof, which was empty except for a few twigs and leaves resting on the shingles. There were no other landings, nothing but limbs and tree above this.
No hiding spots up there. I would have to go into that house alone. I told myself that scanning the treehouse was the right thing to do because I was being thorough, but really I wanted a reason to delay going in that house.
I pulled the small deck of Yojimbo cards out of my pocket, carefully removing the rubber band. I thumbed through the warriors, robots, monsters, treasures, pictures of flaming samurai swords. In the middle of the deck were the cards I wanted: a blue dragon surrounded by crackles of lightning energy, an Egyptian mummy character with a third eye drawn on his forehead, and Derek Jeter. When they first showed me the Personal Derek Jeter Assistant, I argued that they should have used a rookie card because that was the coolest and most valuable. But our tech geek Wally explained that a valuable card was the kind of thing that other kids or adults might steal. Say you get captured and sent into a locked cell, or into detention. Or a bully manages to knock you down on the playground and take all your secret stuff. He might not figure out how to activate the Deadly Putty or anything else, but he would take your Derek Jeter rookie card. You want to disguise everything as common junk, not very valuable, so it'll get passed over by playground bullies or wicked principals who lock you in freezers to die.
I pressed the dragon card, mummy card and Derek Jeter together. The rest of the deck went into my pocket. I always forget which way to put the cards together, dragon up, mummy down and facing backwards, Derek up. They don't snap together unless you have them the right way. Anyone watching me then would have thought I was standing there shuffling three cards over and over. Finally they aligned properly and snapped together. Derek disappeared from the face of the PDJA, replaced by my homepage, a live update of the encrypted Millwrights' news page. Slightly more reliable than BBC World Service on most topics.
I traced a few letters on the face of the device to put it in scan mode. Sitting on the shingled roof, I slowly passed the PDJA back and forth over the surface, then aimed it up towards the higher limbs of the tree. It was a real tree, nothing electronic hiding up there, no signs of life, normal levels of radioactive matter.
Inside the treehouse, more of the same. Any of the horsy tchotchkes on shelves could have hollow spaces with secrets hidden inside, the porcelain mother and foal curled next to each other, the Avon perfume bottle in the shape of a rearing horse. MRI scans revealed nothing but perfume and emptiness inside them. No drugs or explosives molded into the clay or ceramic bodies. No hidden compartments between layers of wall. The five Nancy Drew books dated 1953 were actually made in 1953, according to Carbon 14 dating.
I stepped backwards out of the doorway onto the ladder. I took a few steps down and reached to scan under the floorboards of the main treehouse. A few old drips of polyurethane had seeped down between the floorboards, but nothing worth noting. I used the same vantage point to scan the roof of the veranda. One dead beetle.
A few minutes more scanning this veranda and I'd have to head to the main house. I scanned the ceiling, the rails, the rope ladder, the floor. Found dust, rain, a few leaves. The PDJA could reveal standard trace amounts of dioxin in the dust. It could pinpoint to within 100 miles the forest where the lumber had grown. It told me the tree was 68 years old, that it was free of disease, that invading insects would not be able to undermine the structural integrity of the treehouse for at least 50 years, but it couldn't give me a damn thing to work with.
I looked around for something else to scan, anything to put off going inside the house.
The pale yellow siding of that false wall up against the tree trunk, the part that really made it look like a front porch. I hadn't scanned that yet.
Aiming the upside-down blue dragon at the siding, I saw the rectangular outline of a steel door. The encryption on their entrance code must have been state-of-the-art, because it took forty seconds for the PDJA to find it. The siding slid up out of the way. The steel door in the tree trunk swung out to me.
A polished metal shaft descended down the center of the tree trunk. I scanned for traps and for activity. No traps, one girl's voice coming from eighty to one hundred feet away. I couldn't get a more accurate reading because the voice was bouncing off several surfaces to get to us.
I peeked down to the bottom, about five stories below. A rail of angled iron trailed down the near wall of the shaft. At the bottom was a small platform, shaped perfectly to fit up and down the shaft. Flourescent light spilled over the platform from the wide opening on the other side. Short rods stuck out from the sides of the rail all the way down to the platform. It would be a long climb back up, but not bad going down.
Instead of a doorway at the bottom, the shaft cut into the side of a room. Halfway down I was close enough to hear the girl's voice that the PDJA had detected. "You win again," she said. I crawled lower until I could barely see into the chamber at the bottom.
The room was a concrete dome fifty feet across, curved like a flying saucer. (Don't worry about OTO having that technology. Flying saucers are titanium, not concrete.) The curved walls and ceiling were supported by riveted steel ribs that met overhead like longitude lines converging on a globe.
Three long couches lined the room, covered with toy trucks and ratty-haired fashion dolls. A ten foot wide tv screen in the curving wall alternated between views of security cameras aimed at our school, a few storefronts in downtown Fowlerville, cartoons and home decorating shows. Lisa and a little kid sat playing cards on an aquamarine rug in the center of the floor. I saw three window frames around the walls with those same running pony drapes. Instead of glass revealing some other room beyond, the centers of these window frames showed concrete.
Lisa pushed up the sleeves on her burgundy Harvard sweater to keep them bunched around her elbows. There have been long debates among Millwright strategists about why she wears her blond hair in pigtails, and why she uses those hairbands that look like two little marbles wrapped around each other. Or why she wears coke-bottle glasses when she could easily afford corrective eye surgery. For that matter, she could have her eyes replaced with a better pair involuntarily transplanted from someone else. Wouldn't be the first transplant they had done. Anyhow, I figure the pigtails and glasses and the dorky ponytail bands are meant to keep her looking harmless and childish.
Lisa had a small pile of cards on one leg of her jeans and a memo pad on the other leg. She was famous for keeping lists in that memo pad: People I Like, People Who Dress Well, Teachers I Don't Want To See Next Semester, Places Where We Set Deadfalls, stuff like that.
The little boy in front of her wore a black t-shirt and black sweats. Just what I needed, a toddler to save while I was trying to confront Lisa.
Looking over the layout of the room, the bright flourescent lights, the wide open space in the middle, it was clear that I couldn't hide behind furniture and get close enough to spring on her. The direct approach would have to do. I stepped quietly to the floor, saying, "I like the shape of the place. It's not as villainous as I expected though. I figured you'd have at least a few high-schoolers guarding the entrance, sitting around playing Texas Hold 'Em or something."
Lisa's pigtails flapped around until she had me in view, then they settled behind her. She aimed a remote control at the nearest blank window. A thin layer of concrete slid down into the window sill. Beyond was a dim room where three high school boys sat around a table playing cards. Beer cans and ash trays and piles of cash decorated the edges of the table, and there was a little slab of wood in the center with red and green pegs in it. No poker chips anywhere.
Lisa said, "For some reason the hot game right now is Cribbage. I don't know why."
The boy sitting in front of Lisa grabbed one of her cards, continuing the game of War. The rules appeared to be that each player flashed a card in the middle of the rug, then the boy would scoop them up and add them to his pile, no matter which card was higher.
"We don't usually get visitors from the treehouse," she continued, "so the underground entrance from Dad's house is more heavily guarded."
I paced along the edge of the wall, casually putting myself out of view from that window to the guard station, tapping on the PDJA to scan for anything important concealed in the walls or furniture. Derek Jeter shook his head sadly at me. A word balloon next to his mouth said, "Sorry, dude. Signal's jammed. Can't get anything." I slipped him in my pocket.
"Well, the effect is charming," I said, "sort of Doctor No's rumpus room, or like a room in his volcano complex set aside for his neice to play in while the real villainy gets done elsewhere. This place just doesn't intimidate me much."
Lisa flicked the remote at the window again and the concrete cover zipped back into place. "You're mixing up villains and lairs from different movies. But we do have a laser and a stainless steel table to strap you to if that would help you feel more heroic."
"No time for that. I'm just stopping here to shut your operation down before I complete my real mission. The only question is whether you got the nerve to fight me yourself, or whether I have to take down all your toadies first." I set my feet, crouched and held up my fists in a standard boxing stance. Faking a boxer pose sometimes throws people off when I launch into monkey-phoenix-crane style.
Lisa stood and backed away from the round rug in the center. I thought she was going to jump for an exit and call the guards to attack me, but as soon as she stepped off the rug onto the bare concrete floor, she aimed her remote at the boy.
The rug seemed to shrink until it was clear that there was no rug. Each thread sucked down into its own hole in the concrete, until the boy and the cards were resting on a circle of dotted concrete with a few seams criss-crossing it. The little boy covered his face with both hands and turned to me as the seams slid apart. Just before falling into the hole below him, the boy pulled his fingers out of the way. Instead of shouting, "Peekaboo!" he shouted, "Never! More!"
I screamed, "Ray!" and dove for my little brother.
Don't miss the thrilling conclusion --
Chapter Five: Live And Let Dry!
(c) 2005 by Rob Northrup